Critical Literacy: What Does it Look like in the Early Years?

Barbara Comber. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

The work of early childhood educators in facilitating children’s literacy acquisition has never received more attention than at the turn of the new millennium. Media hype about literacy crises, falling standards, and teacher quality and government promises of minimum standards for all children have simultaneously increased the ‘visibility’ of literacy and the stakes for school performance. Indeed the last decade could be seen as an age of pronouncements with respect to literacy, with politicians internationally promising to cure supposed low literacy with standardized tests and mandated programmes. At the same time as the rhetoric around literacy intensifies, many late capitalist economies are experiencing shifts which have increased the gaps between rich and poor, changed the very nature of work, and fundamentally altered the cultural mix of their populations. More and more children attending schools where English is the language of instruction speak it as a second or third language. Many children have experienced the effects of war, terrorism, migration and poverty. Many live in fractured, fragmented and changing families. Teacher populations are changing too. In some places ageing teacher workforces mean that there is already a shortage of qualified teachers. Literacy is also changing as the impact of digital technologies on global and local communication, economies and knowledges begins to bite in everyday and working lives. In times such as these it is interesting to think about how spaces for the emergence and sustenance of critical literacy in early childhood education might be created.

Critical literacy is a relative newcomer to early childhood educational discourse. Early childhood literacy education has typically been dominated by developmental theory with its attendant assumptions of the naturally developing child and emergent literacy (Luke and Luke, 2001; Reid and Comber, 2002). Ideologies of child innocence and the ‘goodness’ of literacy permeate the field and infuse literacy curricula and pedagogy. The child literacy learner is positioned as a maturing individual—a biological subject—who grows and blossoms with the right conditions and support. Indeed this developmental discourse is central to the notion of ‘readiness’, a key word in early schooling and literacy, a yardstick by which some children are judged as ready to come to school and/or ready for reading and others not (Comber, 1999). Critical literacy, with its focus on power and language, has not been a force in early childhood literacy education. Indeed critical literacy, if discussed at all, is often seen as most appropriate for older or more advanced students. However for the past two decades, there have been studies in early childhood literacy which have taken a critical position and these have alerted early childhood literacy educators to the non-neutrality of literacy, the non-innocence of young children’s textual work and play, and their potential for complex analytical textual practice.

In this chapter I first introduce the concept of critical literacy. I consider what can be learnt from studies of mainstream early literacy education that have taken a critical perspective. The next section focuses on research which addresses questions of power, language and representation in early childhood literacy education. Next I discuss studies of early childhood education which take a multicultural or anti-racist perspective. I then move to explore in some detail two classroom-based projects where the early childhood educators explicitly set out to build and investigate critical literacies in their classrooms. Finally I outline a number of questions for further research in critical literacy.

Critical Literacy: An Evolving Concept

The history of critical literacy is located more in adult and community sites (e.g. Freire, 1972; Kamler, 2001; Lankshear and McLaren, 1993; Wallace, 2001) and high schools (e.g. Bigelow, 2001; Janks, 1993; Mellor et al., 1987; Searle, 1993) than in primary schooling. Paolo Freire is typically credited with its genesis and his phrase ‘reading the word, reading the world’ (Freire and Macedo, 1987) is emblematic of critical literacy internationally. Freire’s insistence that literacy could and should position people to argue for their rights underpins much of the work of educators committed to critical literacy (Edelsky, 1999; Giroux, 1993; Lankshear, 1994; Luke, 2000; Powell, 1999). Defining critical literacy goes against the grain of those who promote its repertoires of practices which foreground ‘debate, dissonance and difference’ (Luke and Freebody, 1997: 16), in that it needs to be locally contingent, dynamic and subject to revisions in terms of its effects (Kamler and Comber, 1996; Luke, 2000). It is also important that researchers specify how critical literacies are constituted in different situations (Comber and Simpson, 2001; Luke 2000).

Critical literacy educators have drawn on perspectives from feminism, anti-racist education, critical discourse analysis, multiculturalism, theories of social justice and more. In the US for instance, critical literacies have developed out of a politicized whole language approach, multiculturalism, cultural and critical theory. In the United Kingdom critical linguistics, cultural, literary and literacy studies influenced critical approaches to teaching English literacy. In South Africa a critical language awareness model based upon the work of Norman Fairclough and others has been a powerful catalyst for change particularly in secondary schools and tertiary institutions. Clearly this developed alongside anti-Apartheid political activism. And there are other histories in other places. There is not one generic critical literacy; rather it is an evolving concept. While it would be worthwhile, a genealogy of critical literacy is beyond the scope of this chapter. As the focus here is on critical literacy in early years literacy education, this chapter is selective in that it attends to work which has had a demonstrable effect on early years policy and practice. Recently Luke and Freebody, whilst also underscoring the range of approaches, have suggested critical literacy marks out:

a coalition of educational interests committed to engaging with the possibilities that the technologies of writing and other modes of inscription offer for social change, cultural diversity, economic equity and political enfranchisement. (1997: 1)

Notwithstanding different preferred methods and starting points, what is clear is a common standpoint towards social equity through textual and representational practices. More specifically, Luke et al., explain:

By ‘critical’ we mean ways that give students tools for weighing and critiquing, analysing and appraising textual techniques and ideologies, values and positions. The key challenge, then, is how to engage students with the study of how texts work semiotically and linguistically—while at the same time taking up how texts and their affiliated social institutions work politically to construct and position writers and readers in relations of power and knowledge. (1994: 139)

In this context critical literacy is seen as an evolving repertoire of practices of analysis and interrogation which move between the micro features of texts and the macro conditions of institutions, focusing upon how relations of power work through these practices. In practice, critical literacy involves at least three principles for action:

  • Repositioning students as researchers of language
  • Respecting student resistance and exploring minority culture constructions of literacy and language use
  • Problematizing classroom and public texts (Comber, 1994).

By this account teachers start with an analysis of who the students are, and what they can already do with words, and then help them to research and analyse social and textual practices. The aim is to have them assemble repertoires of practices they can use to understand the work texts do and to make texts that work for them. In early childhood classrooms this often involves three key pedagogical moves (Comber, 2001a): recognizing and mobilizing children’s analytic resources (Dyson, 1997), examining existing critical texts (Baker and Davies, 1993; Harste and Leland, 2001) and offering children new discursive resources (O’Brien, 1994a; 1994b; Vasquez, 2001a; 2001b).

In Australia, Freebody and Luke’s (1990; Luke and Freebody, 1997) model of reading has been highly influential at the level of policy and curriculum. They argue that reading incorporates four roles:

  • Code breaker (How do I crack this?)
  • Text participant (What does this mean?)
  • Text user (What do I do with this, here and now?)
  • Text analyst (What does this do to me?).

In later iterations of their model they have renamed the roles as resources—coding, pragmatic, semantic and critical (Luke and Freebody, 1997)—to reflect their sociological rather than psychological approach to literacy as assembling repertoires of practices. A social view of reading requires that teachers give attention to the sociopolitical nature of their work and the non-neutrality of textual practices. They suggest that critical literacy practices might include:

  • Asking in whose interests particular texts work
  • Examining multiple and conflicting texts
  • Examining the historical and cultural contexts of discourses in texts
  • Reading texts against one another
  • Comparing the vocabularies and grammars of related texts
  • Investigating how readers are positioned by the ideologies in texts
  • Making multiple passes through texts.

Along with analysis, they also include transforming and redesigning texts as part of critical literacy (Luke and Freebody, 1999). Similarly a critical orientation is taken as applicable to visual, electronic texts and the hybrid multimedia and multimodal texts of everyday life (Luke and Luke, 2001). Importantly they argue that a sociological approach with its focus on situated practices allows educators to move away from deficit models of learners.

Early childhood teachers have for the most part been held responsible for children learning to ‘crack the code’ and to ‘make meaning’ from texts. The four-resources model of literacy acknowledges the importance of dimensions of literacy with which early childhood educators are already familiar (code breaking and understanding the text). Precisely because it is an inclusive approach to literacy in that it does not discount the importance of any aspect of literate practice, ‘the four-resources model’ has made critical literacy more attractive to teachers and policy makers. That is, it adds to what educators do already. It does not contest that code breaking or meaning making are essential, but it does stress that they are insufficient for proper literacy today. Further they argue that these dimensions of literacy need to be learnt together; that critical literacy is as important in early childhood as adult literacy or secondary school English. As part of the four-resources model, critical literacy has been taken up in many Australian state literacy strategies and curricula, and indeed resources have been provided for teachers (e.g. Department for Education and Children’s Services, 1995; Education Queensland, 2000). In moving to an understanding of literacy as repertoires of practices, unproductive debates about one kind of literacy versus another or one kind of method as more effective than another are bypassed. In this way critical literacy becomes part of a coherent model of literacy as social practice which now informs early childhood literacy education. In explaining the critical dimension of the model they emphasize that learners need to:

Critically analyse and transform texts by acting on knowledge that texts are not ideologically natural or neutral—that they represent particular points of view while silencing others and influence people’s ideas—and that their designs and discourses can be critiqued and redesigned in novel and hybrid ways. (Luke and Freebody, 1999)

Later in this chapter several examples of early childhood teachers attempting to enact and research such practices are described. Along with the reframing of literacy to include a critical component there has also been a strong and growing trend towards feminist and critical readings of both early childhood education and literacy education and this scholarship has paved the way for thinking differently about young children and early literacy. It is to this burgeoning field of inquiry that we now turn.

Critical Analyses of the Early Childhood Literacy Curriculum

Since the 1980s a number of researchers have taken a critical position with respect to the major tenets of early childhood theorizing (e.g. Burman, 1994; Cannella, 1997; Polakow, 1989; Walkerdine, 1984). The notion of ‘childhood’ itself had already been put to question (e.g. Aries, 1962). The dominance of an essentialist view of the naturally developing male child and how this positioned mothers and female teachers was contested (e.g. Walkerdine, 1984). The ways in which early childhood theories position working class, poor and minority culture women as deficient (Polakow, 1993; Burman, 1994; Cannella, 1997), in not making available the conditions upon which ‘normal development’ was supposedly contingent, were made visible. This chapter does not revisit this very productive field of scholarship. Rather it acknowledges that such critiques provided the foundation for much emerging feminist and critical work, thereby accomplishing a ‘discursive shift’ (Fairclough, 1992) in the field of early childhood education theorizing. Developing an explicit social justice agenda for early childhood education is a continuing project that has its genesis in this earlier scholarship (see Cannella, 2000; 1997; Mac Naughton, 2000). Early literacy education became a site that was worthy of attention and critique for educational theorists and sociologists. The beginning of schooling is particularly fruitful as there its goals (including literacy), what it takes for granted about itself (and its subjects), its informing dominant discourses, and its mundane everyday practices are perhaps more acutely visible. Critical analyses of aspects of early years literacy education have focused on, amongst other things, the texts (read and produced), the positioning of students as literate subjects, gendered relations of power, the quality of content and the positioning of parents.

A central technology in beginning literacy instruction is the basal reader or reading series (see Luke, Carrington and Kapitzke, in this volume). Luke (1988) analysed a historical corpus of basal readers, to interrogate the kinds of messages and ideologies produced therein. He demonstrated how such books constitute versions of typical childhood, induct children into particular kinds of knowledge of the world and position them as instructional subjects/readers. While such books claim neutrality they offer a selected range of ideologies and ethics, whether it is a Protestant work ethic, loyalty to the mother country or families behind white picket fences (Luke, 1991). Similarly, Baker and Freebody (1989) provided a comprehensive analysis of the production of the school literate child through the selection and treatment of beginning school reading materials for young children in Australia. Such books provide repeated information about how one is to be a child in the context of adult-child relations and portray mundane everyday worlds. In this way apparently innocent texts teach children what should be familiar, what their lives should be like, what mothers and fathers and children should do—a normative training (see also Baker and Davies, 1993). Baker and Freebody (1989: 161) also analysed the talk around texts, in lessons incorporating enlarged books. Interactions around text can be seen as ‘providing guidelines to the students on how to produce right answers in question-answering sequence in classrooms’ (1989: 161). Hence children are introduced to the teachers’ preferred interpretations of texts and how and when to produce these. In critiquing the ubiquitous basal reader or beginning reading texts, Luke, Baker and Freebody shifted attention away from best materials or methods of instruction to questions about the ideological work of early literacy lessons.

At a similar time a number of writing researchers recognized that the process approach to writing produced risks for different children in elementary schools. These included the use of ‘free writing’ for gender harassment (Gilbert, 1989; Kamler, 1994; Lensmire, 1994) and the dominance of personal narrative at the expense of ‘genres of power’ (Christie, 1989; Martin, 1985), in particular for children who may not access such forms in their out-of-school lives (Walton, 1993) (see Christie, in this volume). In early childhood education writing has received less critical attention; however, insights from these researchers about racial, class-based and gender-based peer aggravation in the writing classroom have alerted educators to revisit children’s writing and drawing as practices to watch, rather than simply to be celebrated.

Since the 1980s many researchers have questioned the content, process and texts of early literacy lessons in terms of the restriction of genres, the infantilization of the content, the non-innocence of children’s writing, the raced, classed and gendered nature of literate identities. Yet despite the growing field of critical research about literacy education, the normative model of literacy development (Muspratt et al., 1997) has remained hard to shake in early childhood education (Comber, 2001b; Dyson, 1999; Gregory and Williams, 2000; Luke and Luke, 2001), particularly at a time when policy makers and politicians are preoccupied with standards (Comber, 2001b).

Luke and Freebody suggest that key questions are about:

who gets access to which technologies and practices of writing and representation—and how schools and literacy education are active participants in the construction of the social division of textual and discursive work along traditional fractures of gender, culture and class. (1997: 9)

Critical accounts of normative or traditional models of literacy education and their effects are integral to understanding both theories and practices of critical literacy pedagogies which have been developed. How one understands the problem of ‘non-critical literacies’ impacts the alternative critical literacies which educators have sought to produce and negotiate. While many of the socially critical studies of early literacy document mainstream practices which severely limit children’s opportunities for analytical textual work and play, some researchers have continued to focus on young children’s sense making in classrooms where teachers make the space for that to occur.

Power, Language, and Representation in Early Literacy Lessons

Although the term ‘critical literacy’ has only recently been taken up in early childhood education contexts, it has been clear for some time that addressing questions about power, language and representation was certainly possible in early childhood classrooms (Dyson, 1989; 1993; 1997). In an extensive series of ethnographic case studies over two decades in the US, Anne Haas Dyson has shown that young, poor, urban children of colour can and do deal with the complexity of power relations and bring to bear multiple sophisticated representational resources in their classroom writing. Drawing theoretically on Bakhtin’s notion of the dialogic nature of texts—‘in a world riddled with voices talking to, past, and over each other’—Dyson (1993: 6) demonstrates that children operate strategically and logically to create texts which work for them in their classroom social worlds. Children employ ‘sociocultural intelligence’ (Dyson, 1993) in constructing texts that position them powerfully and productively in their classroom contexts.

Dyson’s work shows that young children are not simply media dupes or TV sponges but that they selectively appropriate material from popular culture which they assemble anew with home language traditions and school genres. As young children compose texts they simultaneously compose spaces for themselves in the world. Dyson shows too that such composing may be marked by irreverent play, jokes, songs and parodies, not always the serious display of scholarship, but nevertheless an effective method of contesting dominant discourses of the official realms of schooling and beyond. Dyson’s extensive corpus of work, whilst not overtly locating itself within a tradition of ‘critical literacy’, provides more than ample evidence of young children’s and their teachers’ capacities to engage with complex analyses of language as they produce their stories filled with characters grappling for power, influence and social effects. Along with other researchers of children’s writing (Gilbert, 1991; Kamler, 1994; Lensmire, 1994) Dyson illustrates persuasively that gender, class and race impact strongly on children’s writing and their responses to each other’s writing.

While Dyson eschews the sometimes ‘oppressive academic jargon’ of ‘critical language awareness’ (1993: 226) her work is a testimony to young children’s demonstrable understandings and interest in how language works in their real and imaginary worlds. Moreover Dyson’s work indicates what particular children can do with their peer, popular, home, literary and school discourses and genres within a ‘permeable curriculum’ (1993: 224) that allows them to make use of all the meaning making resources they have whilst appropriating those they do not. Her research also strongly suggests that, when it comes to an analysis of language and power, young children have greatest investments in situations and texts that arise in their immediate social classroom worlds. She confirms too the importance of pleasure and play in investigating language and power. The ‘critical literacies’ invented in the sites Dyson reports arise from the productive interplay of young children’s social goals with the teachers’ academic agenda. When children work and play on classroom narratives and dramatic performances in which they have palpable investments, their identity work and their literacy work fuse in fruitful ways. Their struggles over who can speak, who can play which roles, which characters are good, evil, strong, weak, powerful, passive, provide fertile ground for the teacher to raise questions about how these texts work.

Dyson steadfastly refuses categories which consign children to deficit positions and categories about her own work. She has worked against the negative effects of bandwagons and the exclusivity of academic discourse which alienates many teachers. While she doesn’t name her work as part of a critical literacy tradition, the questions she explores are at the heart of a social justice project in early literacy education. Along with her cooperating teacher colleagues she provides the evidence that young children are more than capable of practising critical literacies. Indeed they assemble such analytic practices as they learn to interact through language and play with symbolic and actual representational resources and engage with systematic interactions which require them to attend to specific features of texts in contexts, notice patterns across texts and anticipate the effects on participants, readers and viewers.

Dyson’s research raises many questions for early childhood educators about keeping professional and personal knowledges, school and home practices separated in different boxes. She demonstrates repeatedly how seriously we underestimate what children do intellectually and socially within the micro-politics of their everyday lives in classrooms:

‘Innocent’ children, adults may feel, should be free from such complexities, free to play on playground and paper. But children’s imaginative play is all about freedom from their status as powerless children. Tales about good guys and bad ones, rescuers and victims, boyfriends and girlfriends allow children to fashion worlds in which they make the decisions about characters and plots, actors and actions. Thus for children, as for adults, freedom is a verb, a becoming; it is experienced as an expanded sense of agency, of possibility for choice and action. (1997: 166, emphasis in original)

Dyson works at the interfaces between recognized genres and vernacular resources, between work and play, between oral and written, between the popular and the literary, the critical and the pleasurable. In particular, her respect for young children’s social agency and their appropriation and reworkings of popular cultural texts has informed international curriculum design and classroom-based research in a range of very different early childhood settings (Kavanagh, 1997; O’Brien and Comber, 2000; Marsh, 2000, and in this volume; Sahni, 2001; Vasquez, 2003). For example Sahni explains how she negotiated a responsive literacy curriculum within ‘circles of mutuality’ (2001: 22), whereby young children in rural India developed powerful performative social literacies through poetry, songs and drama as well as drawing and writing stories. For these young children empowerment through literacy was associated with identity formation and social relations in everyday life. Her message is that teachers find ways of incorporating children’s social and imaginary worlds, and include dramatic, performative and pleasurable aspects of everyday life into their design for critical literacy. Dyson explains:

At any age, critical literacy is always a personal as well as political (power-related) matter because it entails reconsidering one’s own experience And critical literacy is always a local as well as a societal matter because it is something we do in response to others’ words and actions, including their voiced views on the social world. (2001: 5)

Critical Literacies in Early Childhood Education: Making Discursive Space

As critical literacy is a relative newcomer to the discourses of early childhood education it is not surprising that little classroom research has been done so far. For this reason I briefly review a selection of studies which are more broadly concerned with social justice in early childhood education and then feature the work of two early childhood teacher-researchers who have explicitly set out to design, implement, and systematically research a critical literacy curriculum with young children in their own classrooms.

Research which explicitly addresses social justice, multiculturalism and/or anti-racism can be seen as related to critical literacy (or at least a parallel movement) in the sense that it contributes to the production of a discursive space, allowing educators to rethink their work in overtly political ways. Some researchers question the effects of English as the dominant language of education for children who speak English as a second language or as dialect; others argue that socially critical literacy should be primarily concerned with inducting children into the language of power (Cope and Kalantzis, 1993). As Pennycook puts it, what constitutes a transformative pedagogy concerns:

whether teachers see their pedagogical goal primarily as giving marginalized students access to the mainstream through overt pedagogical strategies or as trying to transform the mainstream by placing greater emphasis on inclusivity. (1999: 337)

Similarly, in a recent international collection dealing with critical multiculturalism May writes:

a critical multiculturalism needs both to recognize and incorporate the differing cultural knowledges that children bring with them to school, while at the same time address and contest the different cultural capital attributed to them as a result of wider hegemonic power relations. (1999: 32, emphasis in original)

May argues that the goal of critical multiculturalism is to foster ‘students who can engage critically with all ethnic and cultural backgrounds, including their own’ (1999: 33). What counts as critical literacy and/or critical multiculturalism in multiracial and multilingual schools remains an unresolved question for researchers and early childhood educators. In Giroux’s (1993) terms the real crisis about literacy education is a crisis about the politics of difference. He argues that:

Educating for difference, democracy and ethical responsibility is not about creating passive citizens. It is about providing students with the knowledge, capacities and opportunities to be noisy, irreverent and vibrant. Central to this concern is the need for students to understand how cultural, ethnic, racial, and ideological differences enhance the possibility for dialogue, trust and solidarity. (1993: 374-5)

The relationship between literacy and a politics of difference underlies critical literacy in theory and in practice. In the United States there has been a strong tradition of arguing for bilingual education as a key move in respecting minority children’s identities and cultures (e.g. de la Luz Reyes, 2001; Moll, 2001). Internationally, sociocultural literacy research has contested normative educational discourse by promoting respect for poor and culturally diverse communities by highlighting neighbourhood ‘funds of knowledge’ (Moll et al., 1992), the ‘resourcefulness’ of families (McNaughton, 1995) and the children’s use of syncretized (or blended) literacies (Gregory and Williams, 2000). Whilst these studies do not name their objectives as critical literacy they are directly concerned with the relationships between language, power and identity. Moll refers to several US projects to explain:

these projects by virtue of defining diversity as an asset in theory and practice, are ‘counterhegemonic’ in nature. Although neither project necessarily features explicit discussions of ideologies and power per se, they do provide alternative ways of defining cultural resources, and of forming new social relations for promoting change. They also provide, through their agency, strategies for developing new ‘subjectivities’ with the participants, either collectively in terms of how groups of people may be defined or in terms of individual children and their potentials for learning. (2001: 24)

Such research which debunks deficit discourses about the poor is still needed to make inroads on the pervasiveness of blame and derision (Comber, 1997, Freebody, 1992). Research which contests the mainstream normative model of early literacy, with its insistence on mothers reading to children as the single and preferable readiness route to literacy (Carrington and Luke, 2002: Dyson, 1999; Panofsky, 2000), can be seen as making space for different and culturally inclusive literacies that are part of a critical literacy agenda which operates beyond the individual teacher and classroom to change the discourses that pervade and delimit early literacy instruction.

Several UK-based studies concerned with anti-racism and anti-sexism also have relevance here. Epstein (1993) argues that the place to start is the site of children’s everyday experiences of oppression. Epstein invited the five-and six-year-old children in her class to consider topics such as ‘what mothers were like’, to write freely at first, then to discuss what mothers actually did and then to write again. They were then asked to compare their pieces of writing. This led a group of children to survey what mothers were shown doing in the reading books in their classroom and report their results on the limited options available to storybook mothers. Epstein reports that re-examining their own texts and classroom texts led to a raised consciousness amongst the children about gender bias. They returned to this concept to examine different forms of play pursued by boys and girls. They also applied their practice of critically reviewing texts to questions of racial representations. Epstein describes in some detail how she ‘went with’ the issues which arose from children’s lives in and out of school. She states that it is important to work on issues which already matter to the children, in which they already have affective as well as cognitive engagement.

Babette Brown’s Unlearning Discrimination in the Early Years (1998) draws on her work as a nursery educator in the United Kingdom. She argues strongly that the early years is the time to begin working forcefully against any form of discrimination based on stereotypical thinking about race, colour, ethnicity, language, sexuality, gender, or ability. Brown draws on her own practice and a substantial review of research to show that very young children quickly learn to behave and think in dangerous and discriminatory ways and that teachers and early childhood workers can begin to contest this ‘misinformation’.

Other chapters in this volume (see Baquedano-López, Gregory and Kenner, and Razfar and Gutiérrez) more fully address research about cultural and linguistic diversity. Traditions such as multicultural education, anti-racism and anti-sexism have contributed (and still do) to the emergence of critical literacy. This will be evident as we consider closely the work of two early childhood teacher-researchers who designed and investigated critical literacy practices with young children. Equally importantly these educators manage this without fostering relentless political correctness or cynicism. A great deal of what they do in developing a text analytic approach is based on reading and rereading popular texts. This work starts from sites of children’s pleasures and investments in cultural and media phenomena and mobilizes their knowledge and analytic capacities (Comber, 2001a).

Critical Reading in Early Childhood Classrooms: Starting with Texts

Jennifer O’Brien developed her approach to critical literacy in early childhood classrooms working with five-to eight-year-old children in culturally diverse low to middle socio-economic communities in South Australia. She was profoundly influenced by poststructuralist feminist theory, gender and literacy (e.g. Gilbert and Rowe, 1989), critical discourse analysis and critiques of early childhood and progressive pedagogies. Such theories suggested that children’s capacities were being underestimated in literacy classrooms. In a series of studies O’Brien developed a language and a pedagogy of critical literacy that would make sense to and engage young children. Working with feminist poststructuralist theory and critical literacy approaches developed for high school students (Mellor et al., 1987; Janks, 1993) as her guide, plus the critiques of early childhood literacy and progressive pedagogies (Baker and Freebody, 1989; Luke, 1988) on her mind, O’Brien adapted, reshaped and invented ways of examining texts with young children and assignments which positioned them as text analysts and researchers.

O’Brien believed that children learning to decode could take up analytical stances in relation to texts. Influenced by Dyson’s ethnographic accounts of young children’s grasp of power relations in their writing and also by Au and Mason’s (1981) work indicating that the patterns of talk around text could be altered, she was confident that children had the capacities for critical literacy. O’Brien’s main goal was that children question the social worlds constructed in texts. This meant children understanding that texts are constructed by authors and illustrators who make particular decisions about who and what to show and how, who and what not to show, about the scripts and actions different characters are given and so on. O’Brien’s tasks drew attention to the craftedness of texts. For example, referring to contrasting versions of the Hansel and Gretel story she asked the children to consider both the stepmother and the father:

Draw the woman as you think Anthony Browne will draw her. Show her face and her clothes. Use a speech bubble to show what she says.

Draw the man as you think Anthony Browne will draw him. Show his face and his clothes. Use a speech bubble to show what he says. (O’Brien and Comber, 2000: 159)

In this way she mobilized children’s existing cultural knowledge about representations of women and men in texts. The commonalities and differences between children’s predictions became the object of study. O’Brien attempted to increase children’s awareness of the ways in which their reading practices were constructed. She took a similar approach with picturebooks, school reading series (both fact and fiction) and everyday texts (O’Brien, 2001a; 2001b) and she invited children to consider how texts position their readers. Referring to My First Book of Knowledge (Petty, 1990), O’Brien invited children to consider the content that adults include in such books:

I wonder what Kate Petty and the other people who produced this book decided to put in this book for you to read about.

O’Brien positioned children as readers who could and should question the texts that were produced for them. As the children began to critically examine the text and to point out mistakes in the pictures, O’Brien broadened their inquiry and invited them to look at other factual texts in the school reading series to see if there were similar problems there: ‘Let’s look out for other examples of authors not taking the trouble to get things right for young readers.’ In particular, they examined how ‘science texts’ designed for young readers construct knowledge. The children discovered that such texts contained many inaccuracies, a mixture of fact and fiction, and underestimated what they already knew. O’Brien positioned young students as critical from the start. She invited them to interrogate, to examine, and to compare other texts and their own knowledge, to dare to question the authority of the text. She frequently focused on the representation of the family or family members in children’s literature, basal readers and everyday texts. She is perhaps best known for working with young children to deconstruct everyday texts, such as junk mail, using questions such as the following:

  • Who are the important people (powerful, good etc.) in the family created in this text?
  • How do they behave?
  • What kinds of words does the writer/illustrator think you should know about family members?
  • Who are the unimportant people in this family?
  • How can you tell they are less/more important for the writer/illustrator?
  • How does this compare with your experience? (O’Brien and Comber, 2000: 164)

O’Brien’s feminist stance meant that she focused a great deal on the ways in which men and women were depicted in textual families—as kings, queens, princesses, aunts, mothers and fathers and so on. Her work over several years with different groups of children, examining Mothers’ Day catalogues and the wider cultural event of Mothers’ Day (O’Brien, 1994a; Luke et al., 1994), provided an accessible approach to introducing critical literacy to young children.

Luke, in analysing this work with O’Brien and Comber, points out four key moves in critical text analysis, which are evident here (Luke et al., 1994):

  • Talk about the institutional conditions of production and interpretation
  • Talk about the textual ideologies and discourses, silences and absences
  • Discourse analysis of textual and linguistic techniques in relation to 1 and 2
  • Strategic and tactical action with and/or against the text.

While O’Brien employed a planned approach to critical literacy such as the Mothers’ Day unit, like most early childhood teachers she worked with everyday events and incidental texts in the context in which they appeared (O’Brien, 1998). O’Brien was a trailblazer in building, designing and documenting her innovations with critical reading practices. References to her work appear in many state department materials for teachers. In this chapter considerable space has been devoted to describing her actual framing of tasks and questions around specific texts and events because a major contribution of O’Brien’s work is its customization of discourses of critical literacy for pedagogical work with young children. Few educators or researchers had grappled with such issues and indeed, this review suggests that only a limited amount of research focusing on the pedagogy of critical literacy in the early years has been done at this time.

O’Brien also conducted research in her classroom which addressed different children’s responses to her critical literacy curriculum. She reported (O’Brien, 1994b) that there was a differential response to the disruptive feminist discourse she had made available, mainly along gender lines, with some girls taking up socially critical positions and transferring this approach into new texts and tasks. Indeed one young student even appropriated the discourse to the point where she explained that, ‘It’s written in our head.’ This seven-year-old had understood O’Brien’s point that texts follow culturally familiar storylines. Yet several boys in the class were less enthusiastic about her disruptive readings and did not take up these positions themselves. O’Brien’s research raises important questions about what young children do with discursive practices and ideological positions which are different to their own. This relates to what might be seen as the ‘limits of English’ (Patterson, 1997) or literacy teaching. Patterson suggests that advocates of critical literacy need to think about ‘training’ children in particular kinds of critical reading techniques and strategies—sets of capacities which they can bring to bear in particular situations, rather than ethical positions which we ask them to take up. O’Brien’s research certainly demonstrated that young children could read critically. Sometimes some children resisted her invitations to do so. Questions about differential response, take-up and transfer require further research.

Children’s Cultural and Social Questions about Everyday Life as Curriculum

Vivian Vasquez was a kindergarten teacher working in a highly multicultural Catholic school in Toronto when she first encountered O’Brien’s classroom research, along with the theoretical resources of scholars such as Allan Luke, Carole Edelsky and other literacy educators. Vasquez decided to make her whole language pedagogy more overtly political, by taking up children’s questions about justice in representational and schooling practices. Part of her strong justice standpoint grew from painful memories of her own school experiences in Canada as an immigrant child from the Philippines (Vasquez, 2001a; 2003).

Vasquez (2001a) designed her critical literacy curriculum around children’s issues, interests, questions and observations. Often these focused around school and family life. For instance children raised questions about why as the youngest children in the school they were sometimes excluded from events and places (e.g. a school caf), why they had to wait for certain privileges (e.g. receiving a sacrament), differences between men and women in various media representations (e.g. Canadian Mounted Police), people’s rights to different cultural preferences and practices (e.g. vegetarianism, McDonald’s), languages taught at school (e.g. why French rather than Spanish or Chinese?).

Vasquez believed in making the curriculum and her research visible. She and the children collected and posted key artifacts and products of their work—transcripts of their conversations, covers of texts discussed, photographs, drawings, written responses and so on—on a wall (40 feet 6 feet) of the classroom she had covered in paper. Children got to see what was recorded as significant and worth exploring. This Vasquez described (following Harste, 1998) as the ‘audit trail’:

Retracing thinking invites theorizing. As I constructed the audit trail, I began to think about using it as a tool for critical conversation with young children By the end of the school year, the audit trail had become a joint construction between teacher and children and a means of generating and reflecting on the classroom curriculum Each of the artifacts became a way for us to make visible the incidents that caused us to want to learn, the issues we had critical conversations about, and the action we took to resist being dominated and to reposition ourselves within our community. They became our demonstration of and our site for constructing critical curriculum for ourselves. (2001b: 57-8)

Vasquez reports that over the school year children frequently referred to objects on the wall and revisited earlier conversations. Topics raised and explored included fairness, gender, the media, the environment and, as Vasquez puts it, a range of questions about ‘power and control’. Because the wall was visible to all, parents and guardians became involved. Children regularly polled their own class and others about school matters; they wrote a petition; they organized a speaker’s corner; they conducted their own conference to which parents and other children and teachers were invited. In short the children were inducted into the social use of literate practices in specific situations. Over time Vasquez reports that the children became questioners. While many parents were delighted by the children’s engagement, some teachers saw them as ‘radical, rude and disrespectful’ (Vasquez, 2001b: 59) because they questioned how things were. These children were clearly not performing normal kindergartner subjectivities. Vasquez’s work makes it clear that when young children begin to interrogate and research things that matter to them it is a continuously generative process—‘an incidental unfolding of social justice issues’ (Vasquez, 2001a).

Reluctant to ‘frontload’ social justice topics selected by the teacher, Vasquez’s approach is to work with the everyday issues that are often put to one side in classrooms or seen as disruptive. The repertoires of language and literacy practices she assists young children to assemble—public speaking, letter writing, surveys, petitions—are goal-directed and situation-specific, teaching children how to make a difference through talk and writing (or attempt to!).

Whereas O’Brien tended to focus on questions of representation in texts, Vasquez emphasized writing, conversation and action within the classroom and school community, ‘grounding the curriculum in the lives of students’ (2001a: 211). Yet both these early childhood teachers start with the everyday—either everyday texts or everyday life. Both examine school practices and texts. Both are committed to a political standpoint of social justice informed by feminism and critical multiculturalism. Both invite young children to become co-researchers and explore the secrets of institutional life and what’s hidden in texts.

Critical Literacy in Early Childhood Education: A Research Agenda

Research about critical literacy in the early years is still in its infancy. Yet we know from what has been done that young children can appreciate how relations of power are produced through textual practices. We know they can deal with questions of fairness and justice. However there is a great deal more that needs to be explored. We need to know more about what constitutes critical literacies in different early years classrooms and the extent to which the critical can or should be given priority (Hall, 1998). The timing is right for some systematic studies of what critical literacy looks like in different communities and what different groups of children do with the critical discourses which are made available to them. We need to conduct micro analyses of the ways different children participate in critical literacy curricula and what they take from that into their everyday literate practices. We need to look closely at the connections and overlap between critical media literacy, multimodal literacies and new e-literacies (Alvermann and Hagood, 2000; Kress, 2000; C. Luke, 1997; Myers et al., 2000; Nixon, 2003) and critical literacy (see Kress, and Robinson and Mackey, in this volume). We need to explore the relationship between the critical, the popular and the everyday. Recent studies continue to confirm the value of incorporating drama and media studies in early years critical literacy pedagogy. The relationship between critical literacy and children’s appreciation and pleasure in popular culture also needs closer grounded investigations (Dyson, 1997; Marsh, 2000). Productive connections may be made with critical scientific literacy (Roth and Desautels, 2002) and place studies (Smith, 2002) where local action on and within the environment is stressed (Healy, 1998; Powell, 2001; Comber et al., 2001). We need to look systematically at what constitutes critical literacy in different nation-states in relation to literacy policy and accountability frameworks.

Recent publications suggest that teachers and researchers have begun to build on the groundbreaking work of theorists and of classroom-based early years teacher-researchers (Arthur, 2001; de la Luz Reyes, 2001; Jones Diaz et al., 2002; Martello, 2001). The International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English have cosponsored a task force focusing on a critical perspective on literacy. Recent issues of the Australian Journal of Language and Literacy and Language Arts have had themed issues on critical literacy. However the extent to which critical literacy is being taken up is questionable. Recent large-scale school-based studies of literacy (Comber and Hill, 2000; Lankshear et al., 1997) indicate that critical or analytical literacy practices are not yet common in Australian classrooms generally. Given this it may be that critical literacy remains rare in early childhood sites and may be even less visible in nations where it is not yet part of the authorized curriculum. It may be, as Luke (2000: 459) recently suggested, that it’s not whether governments bring critical literacy into state curriculum policy but rather a ‘matter of government getting out of the way so that critical literacies can be invented in classrooms’. Added to this must be a reciprocal alliance between theorists, researchers and teachers to document and analyse these critical literacies as they are produced and to gauge the effects on students in different communities (Comber, 2001c). While there has been a discursive shift in early childhood education at the levels of theory and policy, it seems that on the ground there is still work to be done in terms of imagining, inventing and adapting the discourses of critical literacy for productive learning in early childhood settings. Given the neo-conservative push towards minimal measurable standards in literacy, advancing a critical literacy agenda is both urgent and difficult.